Pine Prairie; the name itself is a contradiction. A prairie is a sea of grass, a Savannah. Pine is a tree. A sea of trees is a forest, not a prairie. The name fits this town. It's a place where old clashes with new and where South meets West. The big cities in Texas are growing and thriving, towns like Pine Prairie are barely able to hold on or disappearing. Pine Prairie is an oasis of culture, a throw back to the way things were. It is not unusual to see a mobile home (something modern,) with a large garden and smokehouse beside it, (something old-fashioned.) In that mobile home could be a satellite dish and computer, with a wood stove for heat.
South meets West at Pine Prairie, Texas. The town's people have the same slow drawl and same laid back lifestyle as their southern cousins. East Texas is just an extension of the great Southern Piney woods. Most of the customs and habits are the same. Even the food is similar. Grits are served as a breakfast staple; cornbread, greens, and sweetpotatos are common dinner foods. Squirrel is consumed in season and the favorite seafood is catfish. Even if your parents were only children, a person still has lots of folks refereed to as "aunt" or "uncle." Pine Prairie is a part of Texas however, and it's were the American west begins. People wear cowboy hats and boots as daily dress. They eat beef, although it can be "chicken fried." People own cows, and everybody agrees that "improved pasture" is land with a pumping jack in the middle, supplying a constant income with the crude oil it sucks from under the ground.
Pine Prairie is the buckle of the Bible belt. Even sinners attend church there. The largest denomination is Baptist, but there are also congregations of Methodists, Church of Christ, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, and even a charismatic non-denominational church at the edge of town.
It has an Independent School district, a bank, gas station, small grocery store, cafe, and post office. It also has two beauty shops, one barbershop, a garage, and a bait shop. None of these merchants sell beer or liquor; Pine Prairie is "dry." There is no major heavy industry; the sawmill closed the last time in the 1950's. People here get by the best way they can.
With all the paradoxes involved, Pine Prairie is still an honest and straightforward community. Life really hasn't changed much in the last hundred years and probably won't in the next century. It's the people of the town that make it what it is, and these folks aren't ones to change.
Bobby Joe Green is the best known politician from Pine Prairie. Not every little town can claim someone with his political accomplishments. It helped that he was a Green. His grandfather owned the big sawmill that burned down during the depression; (it was well insured.) He owned the bank and most of the property in the area. Bobby Joe's Dad operated a smaller mill after World War Two and sold the pine lumber it produced to the booming big cities. After the pine played out he milled hardwood planks for the East Texas oil fields. The Greens made lots of money and owned most of the area. Bobby Joe didn't follow in the family business. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed and struggled to graduate from Pine Prairie High School. He went off to join the army, but his mother kept him out. He started to taste the good life in the bigger cities, coming back home after his father died of a heart attack.
While still a young man he ran for the school board. He only did that to satisfy his mother. There had always been a Green on the board, and since they paid most of the school taxes, she figured that they needed representation. With the Green name and money behind him he won easily. After watching news clips of Gov. George Wallace resisting federal troops in Alabama, Bobby Joe took up the mantle for the "southern" cause. He stood in the main doorway of the High School and shouted "segregation now and segregation forever!" The only problem was that Pine Prairie Independent Schools had been desegregated years earlier. There were only a few African American families in the area, and Bobby Joe's grandfather had insisted that they attend school, so they did. This small detail was OK with Billy Joe, all he wanted was the photo op anyway.
After cutting his political teeth on the school board, Billy Joe, (with Mother's encouragement,) decided to run for State Representative. Bobby Joe's campaigns were always the same. He had two planks in his platform. The first was a state law permitting prayer in schools and the second and even stranger campaign promise was a constitutional amendment striking down all stock laws. The open range was a gift from God and man had no right to restrict animals from grazing on God's property. What made these unusual was that Bobby Joe Green had never been burden by church attendance or a display of faith. The stock law repeal was even a larger puzzle. Everyone in Pine Prairie knew that the best fences and meanest pasture riders were on Green property .The deep East Texas region had been ably represented by Judge Woodrow Steele from the county seat. Outside of Pine Prairie Bobby Joe Green was an unknown and was always soundly defeated in the Democratic primary.
Bobby Joe wore the same navy blue suit to campaign in every two years. As the campaigns started to add up, so did Bobby Joe's weight. The old navy blue suit started to show signs of stress and strain. People started to gather at Booby Joe's speeches not to hear what he had to say, (they had heard it all before,) but to see if he was going to split the seams of his campaign outfit. During the years of candidacy Bobby Joe's personal life had it's own problems. His mother, probably the biggest influence in his life, died. He married a beautiful young girl from Louisiana. The Green men always had wandering eyes and his wife could not handle his infidelity and left. Bobby Joe then became the areas biggest playboy. Finally one day a man came home early from his job at a sawmill at a nearby town. When he arrived he found that his wife was not alone, Bobby Joe had paid her an afternoon social call. The husband chased Bobby Joe out of the mobile home with a 22 caliber semi-automatic rifle. Bobby Joe was overweight, out of shape, and partial undressed so he was moving a little slow, so the husband fired a few shots at the interloper. One shattered the Ball jar bird feeder hanging from a pecan tree at the front of the house, scaring the heck out of some squirrels dining on the bird seed inside. Another hit the windshield of the mans own truck, putting a small hole in the glass and stopping in his drivers seat. The last shot found a more destructive mark, hitting Bobby Joe in the fleshy top of his butt, just to the right of the tip of his backbone. The wound dropped Bobby Joe like a calf reaching the end of a cowboy's rope.
Bobby Joe refused to press charges, and none were made. The man and his wife moved to Dallas for a fresh start and were divorced within a year. The wound healed, but Bobby Joe couldn't walk. Like his old hero, Gov. George Wallace, Bobby Joe had been crippled by an assassin's bullet. The doctors couldn't really figure out what caused the paralysis, but Bobby Joe seemed continent to live the rest of his life in a wheel chair.
The next election was wild, even for Deep East Texas. Judge Steele decided to step down as representative, a position he had held for the past fourteen years. He wanted to hand pick his successor, the county district attorney, Gerald Perry. Jerry Perry, as he was known as by old timers and those not wishing to be too formal, was basically a good and honest man. He had worked hard during elections for his friend Woodrow Steele, always staying in the background, patiently waiting for his opportunity. Now that the Judge was retiring, he was to be paid back. At the same press conference that Judge Steele announced his retirement, he endorsed Gerald Perry, seemingly making him a virtual lock. No sane man would run against the old Steele machine, and Mr. Perry's nomination and election should have been a sure thing.
Bobby Joe decided to run one more time. This wasn't going to be like his other campaigns. Gone was the navy blue suit, instead he wore overalls and work shirts. He said they were easier to wear in his "condition." Also gone was the rhetoric of his earlier campaigns, sure he still wanted school prayer and a return to open range, but this campaign was to more of a soul cleansing experience.
"I have sinned," he would relate, "but the Lord has spared me!" "I have sinned," and the he would confess to a laundry list of sins from zealously to adultery, "but God has cleansed me."
The campaign became known as the "I have sinned " campaign. He hired a man to drive his flatbed pickup throughout the district, stop were he could get a crowd, and help Billy Joe get up in the back where he could sit in his wheel chair and confess. He became especially popular in the small churches throughout the district. After his tearful and heartfelt confessions, the congregations would rise in zeal to proclaim God's love and forgiveness. Slowly, Bobby Joe was gaining momentum.
The finale of the primary campaign season was a political forum where the various candidates gather at the county seat to make speeches and gather support from various factions. It was still the time of the "Solid South," and whomever won the democratic primary usually ran unopposed in the general election that fall. The candidates for commissioners court, county officials and sheriff were all there, as was Gerald Perry. Judge Steele was there at his side to promote a smooth transition. Bobby Joe had never spoken at this forum before, but he would this year. He showed up late after the speeches had started. He knew the State Representative candidates would speak last. He couldn't bring the retiring incumbent for support, but he did bring several church vans full of supporters.
The county officials and candidates for office gave their speeches. The event was energetic but controlled. When Judge Steele climbed to the platform he was given a standing ovation. "It has been my great pleasure to represent you, the fine people of Deep East Texas, for the past fourteen years! During that time this district has grown and prospered!" The crowd applauded wildly. "Our schools are now second to no other area, funding for education having increased over three hundred percent." Again the crowd rose for a standing ovation. "Education is surely one of the greatest accomplishments that our state government can undertake, but THERE IS MORE! We need to improve our infrastructure to facilitate and stimulate further growth, and we need to make more improvement to our neighborhoods." There was more applause.
"We need to safeguard our families and friends from crime, provide a safe and happy environment for our children, and place criminals behind prison bars-WHERE THEY BELONG!" The crowd went wild. "That is why I am giving my complete and total support to a man I know will fight for these ideals as hard as I have. A man whom I admire and respect. I now present to you our new State Representative-GERALD PERRY!
The crowd rose to its feet as Gerald Perry ascended the steps to the platform. He stopped and embraced Judge Steele, and slowly made his way to the microphone. This was the wild, almost carnival, atmosphere that he had envisioned for his campaign. "Thank you Judge Steele, not just for your glowing introduction, but for all that you have done for our district." The crowd responded with more applause. " It is an daunting task I undertake, trying to continue the outstanding work that you and your staff have done for this last decade and a half. I don't take that responsibility lightly. As a District Attorney I have fought to uphold the laws of this Great State, and as Representative I will fight to keep us moving forward through the next century!"
His speech went on and on for another twenty minutes, spelling out some of his promises for his tenure as representative. While this was going on Bobby Joe's supporters were trying to raise him up on the back of the stage. The men strained and grunted as they pushed and pulled the wheelchair up the steep steps. Bobby Joe just sat slumped in the chair until they finished moving him to the top. The noise had caught the attention of several in the crowd, for Gerald Perry's speech was beginning to go too long. "In conclusion, I want to thank all of the people who have worked so hard during this election-and thank all of you in advance for you support and votes." The crowd applauded as Gerald returned to his seat on the floor and the county chairman of the Democratic Party walked to the microphone.
"Our last speaker will be from the other candidate for representative," then he paused. "I want to add that what makes a democracy work is participation. This man is part of this action, without opposition to a candidate we have no way to hold an official accountable, opposition is democracy in action. Now we will hear from Bobby Joe Green from Pine Prairie, Texas." For the first time in his political career Bobby Joe received a standing ovation at the county seat. The crowd realized that he had once again changed his campaign uniform. He wasn't wearing the old navy blue suit or overalls. Instead he was wearing a tailored suit, a tie, and a shirt with French cuffs.
"I want to thank Woodrow Steele for all the fine work he has done for this district. Yawl no that I've run against him now for quite some time, and I want you to know if I wasn't serving the fine people of this district, it might as well been him. Thank you Woodrow, thank you from the bottom of my heart." The crowd responded with applause and the Judge rose and offered a laughing smile and a wave to the crowd. " This may be my last campaign as well, and there are many things I need to say. I am not a perfect man, and I have not lived a perfect life. I am a sinner. There was a time in my life that I said some mean and hurtful things about some of our people. Call it tradition or call it hate, it sometimes is the same thing. Tonight I want to ask Oslo Sparks to come up to the platform."
Oslo Sparks was head of the local chapter of the NAACP. He nervously and cautiously walked up the steps of the stage, and then moved across the platform to the wheelchair bound candidate. Bobby Joe put his hand on Oslo's arm," At one time I publicly came out against desegregation. I know that I have been an obstacle for you and for so many of your people. Brother, I have seen the error of my ways. For all the pain and suffering that I have heaped upon your people, I apologize. I am truly sorry!" At that moment Bobby Joe reached up and hugged the surprised NAACP leader, as he did the air was full of photoflashes and gasps from the entire audience. Oslo straighten back up, turned and walked back towards his seat, on his face was a look that was a cross between surprise and confusion.
"I have broken most of God's commandments, I have lived a life of sin. I followed a wicked lifestyle of drunkenness, deceit, and adultery. Leviticus 20:10 clearly states that if a man commits adultery with the wife of a neighbor, both shall be put to death! . God has punished me for my indiscretion, but God has spared my life. Because of my wicked ways I am now a cripple, destined to live the rest of my life in this wheelchair. I will not let this be the end of my life, but rather make it a beginning. I am campaigning this time to promote God's law-not man's. I am here to spread the word of God's love and mercy. I have sinned, but God still loves me. I am now a servant, listening for God's commands."
" I am a sinner, but I am not alone. We are all sinners-even this fine Judge." He motioned towards Judge Steele as the crowd was silent, then he moved on. "Who would you want to represent you, someone who judges you or someone who understands you and can sympathize with you?" Gerald Perry began to squirm a little in his chair, especially after hearing some murmuring in the crowd. Then a woman rose from the crowd and approached the stage. Those from Pine Prairie recognized her as Sister Abby from the charismatic non-denominational church at the edge of town. She was wearing a long, high-necked dress and sandals. In her right hand she was cradling a Bible and her left arm was held up high. The party chairman quickly rose and called for security. "Wait," asked Bobby Joe, "Let the Sister speak."
Sister Abby starred straight through Bobby Joe, starred into his very heart and soul. "Bobby Joe Green, I've been watching you these last few weeks. I've looked deep into your heart and searched your soul. I've talked to God about you and asked my congregation to pray for you! God visited me in a vision last night and commanded me to heal you. If you believe in God, if you believe he can cure even a sinner like you, rise out of that chair and walk!"
The crowd began to whisper and murmur, but they all looked closer to see what was happening. "Sister, I am not worthy of your healing, I am willing to live with God's judgment," responded Billy Joe. Sister Abby approached Bobby Joe, bent down and grabbed him by his lapels. "Bobby Joe Green, do you believe that God is all powerful and through him anything is possible?" Bobby Joe looked up,"yes Sister, I believe!" Do you believe that God is love and that God is mercy? Do you believe that Gods powers are infinent?" "Yes! Yes Sister, I believe!"
"Then rise up and throw away the chair that Satan uses to keep you down. Throw off the shackles of your handicap and walk!" Everyone in the building stood and starred as Bobby Joe pushed himself to his feet. Everyone was quite except for some of the church crowd Bobby Joe had brought that were praying in tongues. Bobby rose, his eyes closed and his whole body shaking, he balanced himself on his feet for the first time since the shooting. Shouts and praises filled the room as he looked forward into the crowd. Sister Abby grabbed the wheelchair and threw it off the stage. "In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to walk!"
As tears showered down his face Bobby Joe raised his hands, and then his legs,and walked! Gerald Perry immediately raced forward. "Don't let these hillbillies make fools of you! All of this is a well orchestrated hoax." That was the very moment he saw his campaign spin hopelessly out of control. Billy Joe now lashed out at his opponent." Mr. Perry, it doesn't surprise me that you don't believe in the healing powers of God Almighty! Can you or can you not recognize a miracle, even when it's right before your face? You have spent your life prosecuting people, judging them in mans eyes, now the people want someone who will see them with the eyes of Christ!"
Gerald turned to the sheriff, who had already made his speech earlier. "Arrest these people, they are obviously perpetrating a hoax on the voting public and are trying to take this election by fraud." The sheriff couldn't move, he could only watch the crippled Bobby Joe Green skipping around on the stage with his hands held high, shouting praises. The entire crowd was on their feet with amazement.
"It's a miracle! It's a miracle!" Bobby Joe screamed to the heavens. "God has given to me a miracle. He has healed me, he has made me whole! Now God has strengthened me and we wants me to represent you!! Glory!, Glory!, Glory hallehluia!" With all the "praise Gods" and "Amens," the political forum and made a mysterious twist. All that was needed was a collection and altar call and it could have been an evangelistic revival service. The more Gerald Perry fought to keep the crowd under control, the more it slipped away. Soon Sister Abby was dancing about leading the crowds in a chorus of "I have decided to follow Jesus,"and "Onward Christian Soldiers." Even Judge Steele found himself clapping his hands and humming along. All Gerald Perry could do now was damage control.
There was no way to control this movement, however. The media ate it up! The revival at the civic center was the lead story on every newscast that night. It was front-page news in papers all over the state, and all over the south. It was dubbed the "miracle healing" in services in the district the next morning. The media dubbed it "God's endorsement." An election than had seemed like a done deal one week earlier dramatically swung another way. With the Christian Coalition solidly behind him and unlimited media coverage he received sixty percent of vote in the democratic primary. It took the republicans totally by surprise, but they couldn't get anyone willing to take on a man with "Gods Endorsement."
After the general election in the fall, Bobby Joe went to Austin. He introduced a bill to make it a state law permitting prayer in schools and a constitutional amendment to strike down all stock laws. He disappeared for the rest of the session, checking out various establishments in South Austin, showing up at the house chambers for a few votes. He did make one smart move by retaining Judge Steele's staff, primarily because he didn't want to go through the hassle of interviewing new people. Even with his absentee representation, "God's Endorsement" was enough to continue to win re-election.